Moment of opportunity

Updated 28 Sep 2020

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The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

THE initiation of an intra-Afghan dialogue earlier this month represents a moment of hope and opportunity for a negotiated end to the long and bloody war in Afghanistan. After a protracted delay, direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban, supposed to begin in March, finally kicked off in Qatar on Sept 12. They took place following intense pressure from the Americans, intent on pressing ahead with their military withdrawal from Afghanistan in accordance with their Feb 29 agreement with the Taliban.

As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the opening ceremony of the talks, this agreement set the stage for the intra-Afghan negotiations and it was now up to the Afghans to “seize the moment”. In his address to the UN General Assembly, President Donald Trump cited among his administration’s ‘achievements’ its efforts to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, and reiterated that “we are bringing our troops home”. Elsewhere he also announced that American troops in Afghanistan will be down to 4,000 over the next few weeks, possibly ahead of the Nov 3 US presidential election. Driving this effort is Trump’s desire to make good on his election pledge that he would disengage America from its longest war.

All sides expect the intra-Afghan talks to be long and arduous. While talks continue in Doha violence has intensified in Afghanistan. This is evidenced by the recent Taliban attacks in Kunduz and elsewhere and air strikes by Afghan forces on their positions. Both Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, and Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative, have voiced concern over the rising violence, describing it as unacceptably high. But for fighting to continue is not surprising as any reduction of violence or a ceasefire is yet to be negotiated. Until that happens fighting will likely persist as both combatant parties try to consolidate their hold over areas they control or expand them to strengthen their negotiating hand in the talks. So military pressure will persist as an accompaniment to the talks.

Although the negotiations are shrouded in secrecy what is apparent is that the two sides are for now engaged in talks about talks. A ‘contact group’ of half a dozen negotiators from each side has been meeting daily to work out the rules and an agenda for substantive negotiations and decide on next steps. This is proving to be challenging. Again, this is not unexpected as even agreeing on principles and an agenda involves compromises given the different priorities of the two sides and finding common ground on what is and what is not deemed negotiable by them. As Khalilzad asserted in a recent interview, building trust to take negotiations forward is the first and most formidable task.

The path to peace will not be easy as difficult compromises will have to be made.

Fundamental issues are at stake. Although the talks are principally about agenda setting, discussions are also reported to be taking place on the two big issues: a ceasefire and some form of transitional arrangement, the first being a priority for Kabul and the latter for the Taliban. The Afghan government wants at least a ‘humanitarian’ ceasefire as soon as possible but the Taliban have long made it clear that agreement on a reduction of violence or permanent ceasefire can only emerge during the talks when there is an understanding on a political settlement and not at the outset of negotiations.

On a transitional government, their positions cannot be more far apart. The Doha agreement left it ambiguous whether an interim government would be needed to pave the way for what the accord calls the “new post settlement Afghan Islamic government”. The deliberately vague formulations were aimed to create space for the Afghan parties to determine their own future political arrangements. Kabul has for now dismissed the possibility of any interim or provisional government arguing that this is inconsistent with the constitution. The Taliban however are unlikely to accept power sharing without a transitional political arrangement being installed.

On the constitution too, the positions of the two parties are as far apart as they can be, even though these issues will come up for discussion later in the substantive negotiating forum. Once the constitution is included as an agenda item in the talks as part of the ‘political framework’ that has to be eventually agreed, it will open it up for changes that President Ashraf Ghani is loath to accept. The Taliban’s demand for Afghanistan to be declared an emirate or Sharia state will obviously be resisted by Kabul, which instead insists that the country should remain a ‘republic’ as provided by the constitution. Issues relating to the protection of human rights especially women’s rights will also be contentious. Indeed, obstacles in the talks can be expected down the road on many issues. But these are matters for the future.

A more immediate issue might be Washington’s commitment under the US-Taliban agreement to undertake a review of sanctions against Taliban members. According to the Doha agreement the US is committed to begin this process once intra-Afghan talks commenced within a specified period. Washington is also bound under explicit clauses of the Doha accord to consult other UN Security Council members in order to delist Taliban members from the Council’s sanctions list. As these obligations are not linked to or contingent upon a successful outcome of the intra-Afghan talks, President Ghani has strong reservations on this and seems to want to use the sanctions/delisting measures as a bargaining chip to secure a humanitarian ceasefire. But he is unlikely to prevail on the Americans as they seem intent on fulfilling this obligation.

Difficult and delicate negotiations lie ahead. The path to peace will not be easy. A political settlement will require tough compromises by both the Afghan government and the Taliban. Hurdles will be encountered. But both parties must know that the Afghan people, having struggled through decades of turmoil, conflict and war, yearn for peace and expect the talks to yield an outcome that ends their country’s long night of suffering.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2020